Humans have an affinity for language. They’re always creating new languages or modifying existing ones. Although today their numbers are declining, more than 7,000 different human languages are still spoken in various parts of the world.
It should come as no surprise then that the number of languages used in the world of industrial automation is also in the hundreds, with more being created every year as suppliers jockey for position in the marketplace or introduce product features that require new language systems or variants of existing ones.
These machine languages, called protocols, have been in use since the development of Morse code in the 1840s, and have been an important part of the industrial world since the first digital automation device, the programmable logic controller (PLC), was introduced in the late 1960s.
Since every electronic device communicates using a protocol, the growing deployment of computers and other digital components in the industrial environment has added hundreds of additional protocols to the mix. It’s not a stretch to call this clash of languages the modern-day equivalent of the Tower of Babel.
How can we Communicate?
Dealing with all those protocols at a time when industry is focused on connectivity, communications, integration and data analysis is a major challenge for automation suppliers and the manufacturers who purchase their products.
“This problem is compounded,” explains Mark Lochhaas, manager of Advantech’s application engineering IIoT group for North America, “by the fact that most factories contain legacy equipment from multiple vendors – and thus multiple protocols -- that have been in place for 10 or 20 years or more. “
The move toward an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), merging the worlds of OT and IT, will enable companies to better monitor and manage their production operations. This makes it critical to find ways to more easily communicate within a multi-vendor, multi-protocol environment.
While there’s no universal industrial protocol, suppliers have begun to work around the problem by creating conversion tools like OPC UA. It’s also not uncommon for hardware and software suppliers to incorporate the ability to communicate with many different protocols into their latest products. One example of this is Advantech’s Web Access/HMI software, which can handle about 300 protocols, according to Lochhaas. A version is also available to use as a protocol converter.
“But to focus only on protocols is to miss the big picture,” Lochhaas says. “If you’re building a greenfield facility, aim first to select the kind of equipment you need to run your manufacturing and business processes. Only then should you address the issue of protocols.”
“There are thousands of protocol stacks available for conversions once you know the type and number of protocols you’ll have to deal with,” he adds. “More important, these work equally well within the multi-vendor, multi-protocol brownfield facility that most companies face.”
Poll or Push
If there are readily available solutions for protocol conversion, then a more important issue may be choosing the right communication system for your application. Two approaches are in common use today, a master and slave structure that polls devices to check their status, and another called publish-subscribe, or push, that is growing in popularity and often deploys MQTT or similar protocols that don’t require a lot of bandwidth for messages.
In a publish-subscribe system, devices simply publish (send) data to other devices on the system. Subscribing devices may elect to receive only some of the messages based on their content, which makes this a good structure for data collection and reporting. If a recipient device misses a message, it just has to wait until the next time a device sends a message.
Polling systems are most often used for production automation because accuracy and timeliness are critical for human safety in the operations environment and it’s important to know if a message has been received and understood. But in publish-subscribe systems, often employed for IT applications like data reporting and analysis, message frequency and bandwidth are more important factors.
“Improving process visibility, the goal of the IIoT, requires choosing protocols and communication systems that are right for your industry and for your applications,” says Lochhaas. “Solutions are available now to help you begin the journey toward a smarter, more connected, more productive manufacturing enterprise.”
New Tools for the IIoT
Advantech offers a wide range of tools to get data from machines to the people who need that information. These integrated solutions speed IIoT application deployment, from sensor nodes to the edge and cloud.
All embedded and vertical-focus solutions are already pre-integrated with WISE-PaaS/Edge Sense for data collection, edge analytics and cloud connection. Edge intelligence software, including protocol conversion, is available in its WISE-PaaS/EdgeLink Machine-to-Intelligence Engine.
Advantech WISE/PaaS/EdgeLink Studio supports data conversion, which enables equipment used in mass production, such as PLCs, sensors and inverters, to be directly integrated with SCADA, MES and ERP systems, to facilitate equipment operation and maintenance. It also features a “click and go” function for sending data to the cloud, making it easier to upload acquired data for analysis and visualization.
Advantech also hosts an online software store featuring its exclusive software services, diverse IIoT cloud and security services, WISE-PaaS IIoT software services and solutions pre-packaged into Advantech Edge Intelligence Servers.
The WISE-PaaS marketplace also integrates IIoT partners’ cloud and software solutions to accelerate the development of tools for upgrading existing systems to the cloud. Subscribers can enroll in membership packages to obtain these and other cloud-based software solutions that facilitate IIoT innovation.